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"The prodigal son returns," Ainsley Rutherford whispered acidly under her breath.
She looked out of the kitchen window to the long gravel drive that wound its way from the road to the small Georgia farmhouse in the middle of Collier Orchards. She could see the tail of dust kicked up by the red Jag barreling toward them.
Only Luke Collier would drive that fast over gravel. Who cared if he ripped apart the undercarriage of his expensive car by hitting one of the potholes dotting the drive? As long as she'd known him, the man had been in a hurry. And to hell with the consequences.
Shaking her head, Ainsley turned her back and walked to the kitchen table. A well-worn teapot and a plate of homemade cookies sat between two waiting place settings.
Afternoon tea was a relaxing ritual that Luke's grandmother had always followed. When Ainsley had come to stay at the orchard almost eight years ago, she'd joined in Gran's habit. There was something soothing about keeping this part of their daily routine, if nothing else, constant right now.
"He's here, Gran." The older womanAinsley had never been certain just how old Gran waslooked up from her chipped china cup with a serene smile on her face.
Ainsley fought the unexpected and overwhelming urge to cry. Gran's smile was so far from the grief she'd expected, the sorrow she was personally feeling at the loss of Gran's husband of sixty-five years. Pops had passed just two days before, the reason for Luke's headlong race down the drive. In the time she'd been at Collier Orchardsfirst as a scared and pregnant girl, then as their reluctant granddaughter-in-law and finally as the manager for the orchard when Logan had died and no one else was left to take on the responsibilitiesGran and Pops had both come to mean so much to her.
"Well, of course he is." Gran went back to staring into the delicate china she held, rolling the cup back and forth in a mindless way that just wasn't like the Gran she'd always known.
A car door slammed outside. Then the soft tread of leather against the worn boards of the wraparound porch tied knots deep in Ainsley's stomach.
For the first time since he'd left, she was going to see the man who'd broken her heart.
She'd always known this day would come. But, no matter how much she'd tried to prepare herself, there was no way to anticipate all she would feel when she saw Luke.
He'd shattered her world when he'd ended their four-year relationship. Young and blindsided by his desertion, she'd had no warning that he was unhappy. She'd been building a picture of their ideal life at the same time as he'd been planning an escape from her and from the future this orchard represented.
At first she'd argued with him, trying to understand. But it had soon become obvious that Luke's drive for adventure, fame and fortune meant more to him than she ever had. She'd been devastated.
With one decision, he'd set into motion a series of events that had irrevocably changed her life. It hardly mattered that he hadn't realized the chaos he'd left behind.
The front door opened and closed. Luke's footsteps, heavy on the century-old flooring, clicked down the hallway toward the kitchen. Ainsley had played this moment out in her mind so many times. On random days, during empty nights. Sometimes she was angry and railed at him with her fists and words. Sometimes he begged for forgiveness and asked for a second chance. The worst were the scenarios where he didn't care at all. Where he acted as if she'd never mattered.
She knew those were closest to the truth.
Her breath lodged in her throat, a block of solid air she couldn't swallow past. And then he was there, framed by the nicked edges of the kitchen door frame.
He was larger than life. But then, he always had been. Even as she'd spent hours dreaming of a simple, safe and happy life, he'd spun tales of wealth and adventure and conquering the world. She'd envied him that. The confidence he'd had in himself and in his inevitable success.
And of course, he'd been right. He was now owner of a multimillion-dollar software company.
While he still looked much the same, there were some changes to his appearance. He was older, certainly, but then they both were.
He was harder. Not just in his body but in his face. Gone was the carefree look of mischief that had perpetually lurked deep in his eyes. Gone was the dreamer with a plan and a vision for his future.
Now he was rock solid. A businessman with responsibilities and focus. Even here, miles from anything resembling a boardroom, he stood before her in a suit that flowed over the contours of his body as if it'd been molded just for him.
If she'd needed any one piece of concrete evidence that he no longer belonged here, that expensive charcoal-gray suit would have done it. Although, he never really had belonged.
He had a few lines etched into the corners of his eyes now, but the same sharp cheekbones ripped across his lean face. A gift from some long-forgotten Indian ancestor, they matched the dark complexion that made it appear he'd spent hours in the sun when she knew he much preferred to lock himself inside a room and tinker with computers. Or, at least, he had. She assumed that piece of him would never change.
His hair, on the dark side of brown, was too long, brushing the lower edge of his collar and hanging down into his eyes. It had always been that way. Luke had no time for the mundane things like getting a haircut. Or leaving a forwarding address for his family and friends.
No one had known where he was for months after he'd left. If they had, it might have changed everything.
Ainsley had often wondered why he'd felt the need to cut ties with everyone. She knew why he hadn't told her where he was going, but she'd never understood why he'd distanced himself from Logan, his twin brother, as well.
Luke's voice was rough as he bent over his grandmother's shoulder, placing a kiss on her paper-thin cheek.
"Luke." The other woman reached up with a single hand and wrapped it around his neck, holding him close to her. Her knuckles turned white with the force of her grip.
That strength shocked Ainsley. She hadn't seen that much effort from Gran in a very long time.
And then Luke turned his eyes on her. Green. Vibrant. The most shocking shade she'd ever seen. It had been years since she'd seen that color years since she'd looked into the twin of those eyes as her husband, Logan, had died in her arms on the side of the road.
Years since she'd felt the mixture of guilt, anger and undeniable awareness. Her own scars twinged, unwanted memories in her belly and leg.
When had it all gotten so complicated? When had her memory of the two brothers become so tangled together?
Luke, the brother she'd loved with all of her heart. The brother she'd envisioned a life with. The brother who had taken her love and with both hands thrown it back in her face.
Logan, the twin who'd rescued her when her abusive father kicked her out and she'd had nowhere else to go. The brother who had loved her enough to give her everything despite knowing she could never love him in return.
"Ainsley." The single word was pleasant enough. Was it her imagination that infused his voice with a host of emotionslonging, guilt, relief, anger, grief, concern?
Probably. That would be giving the man more emotional credit than he deserved. He'd never cared one iota for heror anyone else as far as she could telland he was hardly likely to start today.
He pinned her for several seconds with his gaze. Her vanity made her wonder what he saw even as her brain told her that his opinion no longer mattered.
With a small tilt to his lips that was far from a smile, he brushed past her to take the seat beside his grandmother. Reaching across the table, Luke grasped Gran's hand. "I'm sorry I wasn't here."
Ainsley choked back a protest. Two weeks ago she'd left a message with his office about his grandfather's rapidly deteriorating health. If he'd wanted to be here he could have been.
Instead of calling him on the statementit wouldn't have accomplished anything and would have upset GranAinsley reached for a cookie and stuffed it into her mouth.
Silence settled around them, heavy and unhappy. A minute stretched to ten. Luke said nothing. Instead, he watched her. The weight of his stare and an uncomfortable awareness crawled up her spine.
Why did it bother her?
She couldn't take any more. As she pushed back from the table, her chair scraped against the wooden floor, the noise more discordant in the silence than it should have been.
With a hand to her arm, Gran stopped her. "Would you mind cleaning up, dear? I'm so tired. I think I'll go and rest."
Immediately, she felt petty. Gran was the one suffering right now and Ainsley was the one trying to run away. "Of course."
With a half smile of thanks, Gran disappeared into the hallway.
"Should she be going up on her own?"
His voice almost made her jump. She hadn't forgotten he was thereher awareness of him wouldn't let hershe just hadn't expected him to speak.
"She's fine. Do you think I'd let her go if she wasn't?"
Ainsley tried not to let the resentment she was harboring leak into her words. Who was he to ask that question now, as if he'd been the one watching her strength and health deteriorate?
Ainsley gathered the dirty dishes and turned toward the sink. Running the water to scalding, she breathed in the smell of lemon and waited for the soap she'd added to turn into a pile of bubbles. Her shoulders began to relax as she looked out the window toward the rows of trees in the distance. They always gave her a sense of peace and belonging. She'd never found that anywhere else. Certainly not in her own cold and demanding childhood home run by her fanatically religious father.
That peace was shattered when Luke brushed against her as he set the last few empty dishes on the counter.
When his body touched hers, she wanted to scream and melt at the same time. It was so wrong that one accidental touch was all it took for her senses to recognize him. To remember.
Her relationship with Logan hadn't been physical so it had been a long time since she'd felt this flush of awareness and remembrance. The anticipation and desire. It had been eight years since a man had touched her since this man had touched her.
In all that time she'd never wanted anyone else.
She shouldn't want Luke now but apparently her body hadn't gotten that message.
The difference was she was no longer a starry-eyed, naive girl. Now she was a woman and perfectly capable of thinking with something other than her hormones.
Taking a deep breath, Ainsley pushed down her physical response and patently ignored the ache rippling through her body. She dunked a cup into the suds and rubbed vigorously before running it through the stream of water and laying it on the drain.
Luke reached into a drawer and pulled out a towel, then stepped up beside her to dry. Part of her resented that he knew precisely where everything was, even after so many years.
Gritting her teeth, Ainsley pushed that emotion down, too.
"Do you think we can get through this?"
Her head jerked around at his words, taking in the long length of his neck as he stared out the window.
Unable to watch him, she returned her focus to the sink. "The funeral? Yes. Gran seems to be handling things well. Your grandfather's passing wasn't a surprise. I think, from what she's said, they had plenty of time to say their goodbyes."
"No. I mean us. You and me. Can we get through this without tearing each other apart?"
Ainsley finished washing the saucer that was in her hand, then rubbed her wet palms on the legs of her shorts and took a step away.
Looking up into his face, she felt her throat go dry. How could she want to both rip this man's clothes off and just plain want to rip into him? To hurt him the same way he'd hurt her.
"That implies there's unfinished business between us, Luke. There's nothing to fight about, nothing to be angry about, nothing left to say or do. What happened between us is done. We've both moved on and are happy."
Swallowing the lump that was stuck somewhere between her throat and her lungs, she turned around and walked away.
Just as he'd done.
Unfortunately, before she could get far enough she heard the single whispered word behind her. "Liar."
And she knew it was true. There was so much left to say, but she wouldn't say it. Because saying it wouldn't change anything. It wouldn't erase the past. Wouldn't bring his brother back. Wouldn't save the life of their dead child, the son he knew nothing about.
Speaking the words wouldn't take away her guilt for never telling him the truth. At first, she hadn't been able to. And then it hadn't mattered. What good could come from telling him that he'd had a beautiful, perfect son who'd lived only a handful of minutes before his little, undeveloped lungs had given out?
So for now, she'd be a liar. Better that than someone who shattered his life the way hers had been shattered. She couldn't do that to someone else. Not even Luke.